Key Concepts & History

Here you will find definitions of key concepts and issues that feature prominently in contemporary discussions of the Middle East. As the project develops, more definitions will be added.

Sectarianism

The concept of sectarianism is one that is regularly used to explain difference and violence within and between states across the Middle East, from the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, to the fragmentation of political life and violence in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Such views seek to reduce events to “ancient hatreds”, removing local context and the political, social and economic forces that shape life in the process. Literally speaking, sectarianism denotes membership of a group possessing a shared identity, belief or ideology that differentiates the group from society. Implicitly theological, such communities are located within broader socio-economic and political dynamics, creating an environment that is shaped by the interaction of a range of different factors from identity to the very nature of belief.

Although we must stress the importance of context in shaping identity and political action, we should be careful not to ignore faith and the history of difference between the different sects of Islam. Predominantly – although not exclusively – referring to differences between Sunni and Shi’a, there is a long and complex history between the two sects, dating back to questions about succession after the death of the Prophet. At this time, difference was political, although in later years it would become imbued with different meaning as context shaped how identities were constructed and interacted with one another.

Whilst sectarianism as a concept denotes a particular thing, it has increasingly become used as a ‘catch all’ concept to refer to all forms of contestation between different groups, regardless of the source of such tension. This type of analysis can have detrimental consequences not only through ignoring legitimate grievances of a social, political or economic nature, but also in helping cultivate a narrative of irreconcilable difference between different groups that plays into ideas of “ancient hatreds”.

Arab Uprisings

On the 17th December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor self-immolated in protest at the widespread repression and marginalization that had restricted his socio-economic and political behaviour. The actions of Mohammad Bouazizzi triggered a wave of protests that spread across the Arab world, from the shores of North Africa to those of the Gulf, whilst expressions of support and solidarity were heard from all parts of the region amidst shared political and economic concerns that had been latent over the past decade. Referred to by a number of different names including the Arab Spring, Arab Awakening, or Arab Revolutions, this project uses Arab Uprisings to avoid any Orientalist associations.

The uprisings challenged the organisation of political life across the Middle East, contesting social contracts and in a number of cases, opening schisms between rulers and ruled that facilitated the fragmentation of state sovereignty. In such conditions, political life became contested as people struggled to voice their concerns and to meet their basic needs. Within such uncertainty, people were forced to look beyond the state to ensure their survival. One strategy was to retreat into local communities such as sects, tribes or ethnicities which were able to provide the means through which people could survive but in doing so, divisions within states were exacerbated, deepening fissures between rulers and ruled.

In response to contestation and fragmentation, political elites sought to ensure their survival by using a range of strategies. From token political reform to violent repression, regimes capitalised of context specific contingency. One common strategy was to exacerbate sectarian divisions as a mechanism of control, dividing protest groups along communitarian lines and attempting to remove legitimate political grievances from public discourse. Instead, events were framed as a consequence of nefarious political activity, typically the result of Shi’a unrest which was incited by pernicious Iranian activity.  In a number of cases, such difference was cultivated to locate events within a broader geopolitical struggle pitting Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states against Iran. 

Proxy Conflicts and Networks

Across an increasingly networked world, ideas of proxies have taken on rising importance within global politics. In the contemporary Middle East, shared normative environments have created links across state borders, adding regional dimensions to conflicts that often begin within the territorial borders of particular states. The region has long been shaped by power struggles between states vying for influence, previously between competing visions of Arab unity and increasingly within the context of a rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Amidst the fragmentation of political organization and parabolic regional pressures, states, societies and social movements struggle locate themselves within such environments, often turning to powerful allies as a means of securing themselves and supporting their aspirations. 

In recent years, this has increasingly played out along sectarian lines, amidst what Bassel Salloulk has termed “sectarianism as geopolitics by other means”. Across the region, Saudi Arabia has offered support to allies who also seek to counter Iranian gains, whilst Iran has provided support to groups who share its vision. It is here, as groups supported by actors external to the conflict clash that we see the emergence of a proxy conflict.

The concept contains a number of assumptions about power relations and causality, often denying the agency of local actors within a relationship with much more powerful external actors. In Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon, the presence of groups with shared sectarian identities leaves states open to the cultivation of powerful networks that can – and indeed have – manifested in proxy conflicts.